Searching for My Roots in Buenos Aires

When the Ottoman Empire began recruiting young men to fight in World War I, my grandfather, along with thousands of other Syrian and Lebanese Arabs, packed up and left for South America.  After 15 years of peddling fabric across Argentina and Brazil, he moved back to Damascus and started his textile business, which stands in the Old City to this day.

Jiddo? Is that you?

I never met my grandfather, but coming to Buenos Aires had long been a dream of mine, if only to find traces of what my grandfather could have seen. My journey to find the Arab quarter in Buenos Aires began in Plaza Armenia, because, well — Armenians are close enough, and I thought it made a good clue.  Sure enough, there were a couple of blocks along Avendia Raúl Scalabrini Ortiz scattered with Armenian and Arab restaurants and import shops, as well as a big Armenian cultural center and Orthodox church. After asking around, however, I discovered that there were but a few traces of the Arab community left.  I was a bit disappointed, to be honest, until I ran across this man, who I’m convinced is the reincarnation of my grandfather.

Skip to: Buenos Aires Essentials

I stepped into an Arab decoration store and speak to the owner for a few minutes an hour. Abdelkader is a 35-year old man from Homs who moved to Buenos Aires five years ago because of the war. I wish I had some feel-good story to tell you, but I don’t. He hates it here.

Other than that, however, I didn’t find out much. I went to the mosque to conduct some research, but the security guard was very unhelpful. I did pray for the first time in a looooong time, however, because they wouldn’t let me enter the mosque unless I said I was going into pray. I ate a sausage sandwich (choripan) right after. It cancels out, right?

A couple of Arab-Argentine anecdotes:

  • Apricots, which are called albaricoques in Spain, are known as damascos here. Damascus represent!
  • Fatayer, triangular Arab-style hand pies, are sold as a late-night snack called fatay, though basically the only difference between fatay and empanadas is the shape.

    Eating in the name of research
  • Alfajores, the national dessert of Argentina, originally come from the Arabic word الفاخر (al-fakhir), which means “luxury”. The dessert was originally developed in Arab Andalucía, Spain, and carried over during the colonization of the Americas. (source)
  • When Syrians and Lebanese like my grandfather arrived on the shores of Argentina in the early 20th century, they were still officially citizens of the Ottoman Empire and were all registered upon arrival as turcos, or Turks. To this day, Carlos Menem, the president of Argentina from 1989-1999 who was born to Syrian parents, is known as El Turco!

And that concludes my informal, non-journalistic research of Arabs in Argentina. I also did some other typical touristy Buenos Aires things, which you can find below with limited commentary.

Saw street-side tango in San Telmo, by far my favorite neighborhood:


Took in the colors of La Boca:

Hung out with the punks, vandals, skaters and tattooed hooligans at Bond Street:


At night, I played ping pong and drank beer in Cafe San Bernardo in Palermo, because my host D is an amateur ping-pong player (and his best friends is a professional). I couldn’t keep up at all. It was an awesome old man bar though.

Buenos Aires Essentials:

Airport: Ministro Pistarini International Airport (EZE) for international flights Jorge Newberry Airfield (AEP) for domestic flights

How to get to/from the airport: Taxi or Uber. There are also colectivos, or public buses, that run to/from the airport if it’s at a reasonable time. Bus 8 for EZE and Bus 33, 37, 45, or 160 for AEP.

Port: Puerto Madero. This is where to get ferries to/from Montevideo.

Central Bus Station: Retiro. This is where to catch buses to other parts of the country.

Currency: Argentine peso (ARS). It hovers around 20 pesos to the dollar (but their currency is crazy, so check back)

Must try: Alfajores, dulce de leche, bife de chorizo, mate

Recommended read: Ficciones, by Jorge Luis Borges

Recommended listen: There are so many good bands that came out of Argentina in the 80s and 90s, it’s hard to pick just one song. If you haven’t, listen to Soda Stereo, as they’re they OGs of Latin American rock. But my recommendation is this:”Loco (tu forma de ser)” by Los Auténticos Decadentes.

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